Five truths about training camp
It's a cold, calculated process; those trying to make rosters have little control
After the longest offseason of any major sport, NFL teams finally gather this week for training camp.
And because of the new CBA and more mandated time away from the facility, the 2012 NFL offseason looked more like the 2011 locked-out offseason than prior offseasons.
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With the hope and anticipation of a new season upon us, here are five cold, hard and inconvenient truths about training camp.
1. Many players in camp have no chance of making the team
Teams have most of their depth chart and final roster established well before camp opens. Sure, there will be a couple of tweaks, but absent of a sustained impressive performance through camp and a scout or coach standing on the table for a prospect, odds are minimal.
Sadly, many players have no chance of making the team no matter how well they perform, and that may be due more to the position they play than how they play it. When a team sets its final roster, it examines its scheme and determines its numbers for the final 53: five or six receivers, three or four running backs, etc. These numbers ultimately determine final roster spots as much as or more than performance.
2. Cutting the roster is a cold and impersonal process
A player usually finds out the team is "going in a different direction" in a short phone call. In Green Bay, I heard Reggie McKenzie, now general manager of the Raiders, call hundreds of players and say, "Sorry, big fella, but we gotta let you go." In the flash of a few seconds, players realize their dream is deferred or ended.
The call sets in motion steps to purge the player from the roster quickly and expediently: locker nameplate is removed, personal items boxed, playbook taken, forms executed with trainers (to avoid lingering liability for the team) and travel arrangements made. Most players barely get a moment with their position coach; coaches have already moved on to preparing for the next practice. The business of football moves at warp speed.
3. Draft position and money matter
We would like to believe that the best players will make the team regardless of draft position or the size of contracts. And there are a few nice stories of undrafted free agents overcoming the odds and making rosters every year.
However, the reality is that there are reputations at stake here, and I don't mean reputations of players. Scouts and general managers want their draft picks to pan out; those players are given much more latitude than players not drafted or acquired by the current regime. Front offices want their player acquisitions to succeed; these players are given every benefit of the doubt.
This can exacerbate clashes between personnel staff and coaches. Scouts think one player should be playing and coaches like another. Debates can become heated, even physical. This happens every year in every training camp.
4. Labor Day means a lot less labor
The NFL labor force is reduced by approximately 35 percent on Labor Day weekend. There are 90 players on the field in late July, but that number is reduced to 53 in September. Hundreds of jobs are lost on the weekend celebrating jobs.
The sad part -- and this is the former agent in me coming out -- is that most released players have done everything the team asked them to do: work hard in the offseason program, take reps in practice, play in preseason games, etc. Simply, they had very little chance of making the team when they signed and there was little they could do to change that equation.
5. Injuries matter a lot
I spent more time in training camp with our medical staff than I did with our football staff.
Although players train during the offseason -- some more than others -- there is no accurate simulation of training camp practices and players finally going "live." Thus, there are countless muscle strains and sprains -- hamstrings, ankles, hips, glutes, calves, knees, etc. -- early in camp. And when injuries to backups occur, the chain reaction means more reps for starters, whom coaches are trying to keep fresh. This was when I would sign "camp bodies" (players to eat up reps so "real" players wouldn't wear out).
When a fringe player suffers an injury, contract managers, as I was, are told to "get him out of here," as he is taking up valuable resources from staff. I would then start the injury settlement process; haggling with the agent about how many weeks of pay the player was due.
Finally, injury waivers -- demanding players waive their legal rights if released with a pre-existing injury -- are common in camp. Although occasionally a top-tier player may have a waiver -- Peyton Manning has an injury waiver in his Broncos contract for injury to his C-6/C-7 cervical spine fusion "and related pathologies" -- these onerous clauses are usually imposed on players with no leverage.
My enduring thought from my more than a decade around training camps is always the following: so many players, so few jobs. It's a cold business.
From the inbox
Q: Can you explain "offset" and why it is such a big deal this year in rookie contracts?
Jeff in Duluth, Minn.
A: Offset language became the issue in top rookie contract negotiations this year. Because the new CBA positions the "frontside" of the contract -- signing bonus, salaries, cap number, etc. -- with little to no negotiation, the only bargaining has been about "backside" issues, primarily this.
As top pick contracts are fully guaranteed, teams want their money offset if the player is released and signs with another team. Agents are resisting, wanting the player to be able to "double dip" -- earn salary from two teams -- if released. And it is the agents, not the teams, winning this battle. All of the top nine picks to sign do not have offset language at this point. As of this writing, only the Vikings, Jaguars and Dolphins are left to fight the battle of offset.
Q: Why are these teams so concerned with offset language?
William in Dallas
A: As someone who has been in that chair, the concern is always the same: precedent. Negotiations are never about one player; they set a roadmap for future contracts, and agents will pounce on the no offset language.
Of particular concern to teams are veteran contracts. I can hear agents now: "If a rookie doesn't have offset language, my veteran player is not accepting it!" And that is a valid argument.
The biggest non-offset I can remember was when the Panthers cut Jake Delhomme in 2010 after rewarding him with a major extension a year before. Delhomme then signed with the Browns and, with no offset language in his contract, made $20 million that season -- $7 million from Cleveland and an astounding $13 million from Carolina.
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